Everyone needs a beta! Mentoring relationships in the fan fiction community

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 2.07.25 PMby Sarah Schwartz

As a part of the MacArthur Research Network on Connected Learning, I have been experiencing a steep learning curve when it comes to the potential of utilizing new technology and web-based platforms to facilitate learning and connection (as a psychologist, my focus has been primarily on face-to-face relationships). Recently I have been working with Jean Rhodes and a fabulous undergraduate student, Stephanie Robin, on a research project that has introduced me to a new online world: the world of fan fiction.

Fan fiction is a form of writing in which stories are constructed based on characters, settings and/or writing styles from an existing work (including books, movies, anime, television shows, video games etc.). These stories are posted on fan fiction websites, where other fans may read the stories and post comments and reviews. Fan fiction reaches huge numbers of youth, with the most popular site, fanfiction.net, estimated to include almost 3 million users approximately 80% of whom are between the ages of 13 and 17 (source: ffnresearch.blogspot.com).

In our study, through interview and survey data, we explored the role of mentoring relationships in fan fiction communities. As I have become more familiar with the world of fan fiction, I have learned a whole new vocabulary: fics are stories, flamers are people who write attacking reviews, and betas are people who provide writing support, guidance, and editing for writers who are looking for assistance. Unsurprisingly, as a mentoring researcher, the “beta” system is perhaps what I found most exciting about the fan fiction world. The term beta comes from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, and has been adapted in software communities to mean the phase after “alpha” testing when an incomplete version of a product is released for initial testing. In the fan fiction community, a beta is someone who will read your writing and give you initial feedback and editing before you post it publicly on the website.

On fan fiction websites, there is a “beta” tab, where people who want to provide writing support for others can sign up to be a beta reader. To do so, you need to have a minimum amount of experience writing fan fiction and pass a brief quiz (focused primarily on writing/editing skills), and then you can create a profile. The “beta” profile describes your strengths (e.g., grammar, character development etc.) and your interests, including both types of stories you would be especially excited about and those you would not be interested in. Writers can then browse profiles of betas to find a beta that would be a good fit for them. Once they find someone who they think would be a good fit, they contact that person through the website and ask them to be their beta. Our data indicated that while some of these relationships between betas and writers remain solely focused on the writing, others develop into deeper relationships in which writers sought guidance not only about writing, but also about a range of social, emotional, and academic issues.

I believe this structure of betas may hold significant potential for a range of contexts beyond fan fiction. As web-based platforms continue to expand as a way for youth and adults to convene around common interests and activities, betas provide a model of a built-in structure that allows those with more experience who are interested in providing support and guidance around a specific area of interest to connect with those with less experience who are seeking such support. Moreover, by allowing betas to create profiles specifying interests and writers to choose betas based on their profiles, this structure facilitates interest-based matching (which is one of the most important factors predicting more effective matches, according to DuBois and colleagues’ most recent meta-analysis). It also incorporates principles from youth-initiated mentoring, since writers select and reach out to potential betas who they believe would be the best fit for them, which research and theory suggest may increase investment in the relationship and result in more enduring relationships.

Of course, there are also risks involved in this type of grassroots structure that facilitates relationships without a program or infrastructure to provide safeguards to ensure that such relationships are safe. Currently, there is no screening, training, or support provided to individuals who sign up to be betas (beyond minimum writing requirements and a single self-administered online quiz). An interesting possibility would be to combine the existing structure with a formal mentoring program, so writers and betas could have the option of participating in a more formal program that provides additional infrastructure and support.

Nevertheless, even without a more formal program, our study results revealed that social support within the fan fiction community (including betas, informal mentors, and readers who post reviews) plays a key role in maintaining participants’ interest in fan fiction and helping them to develop and improve their writing, allowing them to translate their interests into academic and career-related skills. Data also suggested that many of these mentoring relationships within the fan fiction community reach mentees and mentors who otherwise would not be participating in any mentoring relationships. Through this study, I’ve come to believe that fan fiction websites, and particularly the structure of betas, may provide an extremely promising model of how to harness the connecting power of the internet to create interest-based relationships that can facilitate learning and development.